With the sixth round of UN-sponsored talks on Afghanistan scheduled to begin Monday, diplomats are divided on the prospects for progress toward ending the Soviet occupation. The indirect talks between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan should indicate whether there is a change in the Soviet position, as optimists believe, or whether the Kremlin's recent verbal flexibility on this issue has just been another bid to gain time, as pessimists claim.
Immediately after last month's superpower summit in Geneva, US Secretary of State George P. Shultz said that ``[Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev had some interesting things to say'' on the Afghanistan issue and that President Reagan had ``found evidence that the Soviet Union wants to solve the Afghan problem.'' However, assessing chances for an early political settlement, United Nations Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar says, ``There are reasons for hope, but so far no reason for opti mism.''
``If the summit has helped to overcome suspicion, there probably can be movement in the negotiations,'' UN Undersecretary-General Diego Cordovez says. `` If not, I fear the deadlock will continue,''
Mr. Cordovez has been intermediary in indirect negotiations between Pakistan and Afghanistan since they began in 1982. Pakistan refuses to talk directly to the Afghans on grounds that this would grant legitimacy to the Soviet-backed government of Babrak Karmal.
This month marks the sixth year that Soviet troops -- now numbering some 115,000 -- have occupied Afghanistan. And there is not much sign of a withdrawal in the near future -- a move which would be much welcomed by a somewhat nervous Pakistan as well as by the United States. In October, the US Congress reportedly approved $250 million in covert military aid to the mujahideen (Afghan guerrillas) who are battling the Soviet occupation and the Soviet-backed Afghan Army.
During the five previous meetings since Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan in December 1979, Cordovez has managed to achieve broad agreement on three parts of a four-part settlement package. The three parts, with specifics to be worked out, provide for:
Noninterference by all states in Afghanistan's internal affairs.
The voluntary return of some 41/2 million Afghan refugees, including some 3 million in Pakistan and almost 1 million in Iran.
International assurances, with the US and the Soviet Union as guarantors, that the terms of any final accord will be observed.
The sticking point is the fourth issue -- the withdrawal of the Soviet troops propping up the Afghan government.
Under the agreed package arrangement, none of the three accepted elements will be put into effect until all parties approve the fourth component. Negotiations on the last document are hung up on two points:
Moscow and Kabul insist that any troop pullout is a bilateral matter and contend that the Soviet military is there at Kabul's request -- to deal with perceived threats from Afghan guerrillas who are armed by the US via Pakistan.
Afghan demands, backed by the Soviets, for direct talks with Pakistan -- which Pakistan's President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq rejects.
Optimists among the UN diplomats see a softening of Moscow's position in the fact that Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev discussed Afghanistan at their Geneva summit in November.
Others point to ``new pressures,'' which, they argue, will prompt Moscow to reassess the wisdom of continuing its military occupation.
One such pressure is the annual UN General Assembly vote for troop withdrawal. It passed this year with a landslide vote. Another was the adoption by the General Assembly of a UN investigator's report that condemned the terrorism, torture, destruction, mass killing of civilians, and other human rights violations in Afghanistan. The reported attributed the human rights situation to the presence of ``foreign forces.''
Other optimists agree with Pakistan's President Zia, who equates the proximity talks with progress.
Commenting on the new round of talks in Geneva this month, Zia said in an interview, ``these meetings cannot take place unless the Afghanistan representatives have been given tacit approval by the Soviet Union. The fact that the Soviet Union wishes to continue, through Afghanistan, to talks to us. . . indirectly is an indication [of progress] in itself.''
But Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar shies away from that interpretation, shared by many UN delegates.
``If two men . . . meet together to disagree,'' he said, ``I don`t know what is the advantage. We need more than smiles, more than handshaking, more than meetings.'' He made clear that he was alluding as much to the Reagan-Gorbachev summit as to the Afghan talks.
Diplomats close to the talks are confident that the peace package could be wrapped up quickly if the withdrawal issue is settled.
Publicly, Moscow and Kabul refuse to agree to a withdrawal timetable until they have iron-clad assurances that outside intervention will cease. Pakistan officially maintains that it does not provide weapons, training facilities, or sanctuary to Afghan guerrillas.
Diplomats here say neither Pakistan nor the US would commit themselves to a cutoff date for ending any military assistance to the mujahideen until the Soviets first agree to an acceptable withdrawal date.
The Soviets have become more suspicious recently because of Washington's overt moves toward providing increased military aid to guerrilla forces not only in Afghanistan but also in other Moscow-allied countries such as Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. For its part, Pakistan's distrust of Moscow has deepened because of the recent step up in Soviet military activity along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Monitor correspondent Louis Wiznitzer contributed to this report from Paris.